A man for all seasons: Anupama Chopra on Netflix’s Ted Sarandos
The streaming giant’s co-CEO has been using charm, drive, a massive budget and his discerning eye to showcase voices from around the world. Notes from a recent conversation.
There are many things I admire about Ted Sarandos, starting with his formidable creative instincts. Netflix’s co-CEO has spent 21 years at the streaming platform. Along with co-CEO Reed Hastings (who is also co-founder and chairman of Netflix), Sarandos has reconstituted the global entertainment landscape: in 2017, the trade magazine Variety ran a cover story titled Has Netflix’s Ted Sarandos Rescued (or Ruined) Hollywood?
Here’s where the platform currently stands: It has 209 million subscribers in over 190 countries (admittedly, over a third of that base is in North America, but that number has dipped and its presence in other countries is growing). Netflix has won 93 Oscar nominations over eight years, 36 of those in 2021; and 752 Primetime Emmy nominations, including 129 this year.
Overseeing a $17-billion annual content budget, Sarandos is, in a sense, tastemaker to the world. He is also startlingly vanity-free. Over the past four years, I’ve had some opportunities interview him. Last week, we did an hour-long online session with a live audience.
In person, Sarandos is affable (Variety called him “the Tom Hanks of studio executives”), quick to deflect praise for stellar programming to his team, and elegant when it comes to sidestepping thorny questions. When I asked about the recent churn at Netflix India and the negative publicity that ensued, he put it down to a “trial and error period”. He said: “As good as you can be in one country, it tells you almost nothing about the next one. You have to figure how you make Netflix as passionately connected with members in India as they are in Indiana. That takes time. I wish there was a shortcut.”
Sarandos went on to cite the examples of the young filmmaker Stefon Bristol, “who we took directly out of film school at NYU”, and Jeymes Samuel who has directed the upcoming Netflix western The Harder They Fall. Once, when Hastings was asked how Netflix managed to get Robin Wright and Kevin Spacey for House of Cards back in 2013, he replied, “Ted’s charm and a hefty paycheck.” I suspect that formula is still in place.
Sarandos is a cinephile turned media mogul. His meteoric rise is the stuff of showbiz fairy tales. One of five siblings, he grew up in a low-income neighbourhood in Phoenix, Arizona. His father was an electrician and his mother a homemaker. He has spoken in interviews about his family living “paycheck to paycheck”. One constant in his life was television. He often watched show after show until 2 am (favourites included I Love Lucy, The Jack Benny Program and The Andy Griffith Show).
His passion for stories was further honed when, as a teenager, he worked at a local video store. He made his way through a large portion of the 900 movies it stocked and developed an encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema. He also developed a taste for foreign films.
He is now so famous that people pitch him plots when he’s at restaurants or standing in line to get coffee. During our session, he said he was once on vacation, standing on a scenic hotel balcony and taking in the view, when someone on another balcony started shouting a story at him.
When I asked if he ever thought of directing himself, he said that would be akin to going to the Louvre and saying, “I think I’m going to start painting”. Instead, Sarandos functions as a master enabler, creating opportunities for voices from around the world. As he put it: “The benefit of exporting storytelling is making this big scary world a little smaller.” Indeed.